Wednesday, January 6, 2010

On Jack B. Yeats

Two whole rooms in the National Gallery of Ireland are dedicated to the paintings of Jack B. Yeats, brother to the great poet W. B. Yeats. Jack Yeats is another painter whose work I've loved since I was in my teens, but this is the first time that I've seen so many all at once. In fact I think I may have only seen a couple of his pictures prior to this. In contrast to Caravaggio and Vermeer, who I talked about in an earlier post, Yeats style is all about loose paint, thinned with turpentine or linseed oil, applied on the canvas with rags, the ends of brushes, and lots of short brushtrokes. Actually, it's probable that Caravaggio started his big canvasses in this way too, by blocking in large shapes with a wide brush and rags dipped in paint. But he would 'work up' those first gestural shapes into highly finished surfaces. Yeats, being the good twentieth century painter that he was, ultimately developed a style where the surface gives the appearance of being in a highly unfinished state.

His early work consisted of scenes from Dublin life, painted with a magazine illustration style solidity. From the late 1920s until his death, his subjects were drawn from imagination and literature, and the application of the paint became looser and quicker. They appear to be hastily done, which may be the case, but the best of them are tightly organised in terms of their colour harmonies. Take 'The Singing Horseman', above. Despite the scribbled style of the brushwork, and the freshness and spontaneity that results, the picture consists of a simple contrast between blue and yellow. The green tones might come from a mixing of blue and yellow on the canvas itself. The figures in this picture are quite clear, but some of his pictures of crowded rooms are a riot of squiggles, slashes, and jabs--yet the pictures will still resolve into one or two tones when you look at them from a few steps away.

It was a great pleasure to see so many of Yeats' pictures in one go. They are full of life and colour, and a sense of poetry and mystery that comes from a mind as immersed in literature as it is in looking.

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